With the sports world on hold, we gave you the 50 greatest moments in Wisconsin sports history over the past 50 years. What about the next 10 that just missed the list? This is No. 54.
When someone brings up “iconic call by Al Michaels,” there’s no doubt where the mind goes — it flashes back to the Miracle on Ice in 1980.
But “He did what?” gets an honorable-mention nod, at least for Packers fans.
When Antonio Freeman rose to his feet and scampered into the end zone, a gleeful chaos emerged in the “Monday Night Football” booth. “What are they ruling; he caught it?” Michaels asked excitedly into the microphone as Freeman leaped into the front row of fans at Lambeau Field. “He did what?”
The Nov. 6, 2000 game between the Packers and Vikings had been a rainy mess, but Packers fans vividly remember the final play of the game. Freeman went to the ground on a third-and-4 pass from Brett Favre that appeared to fall incomplete. Vikings defensive back Cris Dishman celebrated as if he’d broken the play up and forced either a gutsy fourth-down snap from the Vikings 43 or a punt.
But the ball never quite touched the ground, bouncing off Freeman’s left shoulder momentarily before the receiver reached out and rescued it from the turf. Having never been touched for a tackle, Freeman got to his feet, ran to the end zone, and gave the Packers a stunning 26-20 victory in overtime.
“I didn’t even know he had the ball,” Favre said afterward. “So I run down there and jump on him and in the middle of all the mayhem, I just kind of whispered, ‘Hey, did you catch it?’ And when he responded, it was actually Donald Driver I was asking. When I finally got to Free, he said, ‘Hell, yeah, I caught it.'”
The 2000 season isn’t in the pantheon of greats for Green Bay Packers fans. The Packers fired Ray Rhodes after 1999 and turned to Mike Sherman They were 3-5 before the battle against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Packers won their final four games and finished 9-7 but missed the playoffs. The “Monday Night” battle wasn’t a true turning point, either. Green Bay lost two of its next three games. The Freeman catch isn’t as consequential as Sterling Sharpe’s catch in 1994, Yancey Thigpen’s drop, Al Harris’s pick-six or Randall Cobb’s winner in 2013, but it lives in “Monday Night Football” montages.
“No, I wouldn’t call it a miracle,” Sherman said. “I’d call it a happy moment. It was an even game and we made a play, a very special play, at the end. It’s a great win.”
Nah, it was pretty much a miracle.
“As I rolled back, I got an early Christmas gift, I guess,” Freeman said. “Hey, who said football was all skill? Tonight, we got our lucky bounce.”
A muddy Monday night
Realistically, the Packers should have lost, but Minnesota committed five turnovers. The Vikings came into the battle at 7-1 and looked like the unquestioned team to beat in the division (and they did wind up winning the division).
The Minnesota secondary had struggled in the game, and despite winds of 25 mph gusts, Favre completed 17 of 36 passes for 235 yards, and several more passes were dropped.
“I thought our quarterback was phenomenally accurate,” Sherman said.
Kickoff return man Allen Rossum broke a tackle at the 25 and sprinted to the 2-yard line for a 90-yard kickoff return, setting up a short touchdown run from Ahman Green to tie the game at 20-20 in the third quarter.
Rossum also came up big on defense. After a 25-yard punt to the Green Bay 48 gave the Vikings good field position toward the end of regulation, Randy Moss made a 19-yard reception that set up Gary Anderson for a 33-yarder to win at the end of regulation. But punter Mitch Berger couldn’t field the snap. With Rossum on Berger’s back, all Berger could do was heave up a pass that was intercepted by Tyrone Williams.
The Vikings might have been able to get another play off if they had downed the ball, but Rossum forced Berger to throw the ball in the air, and the game moved to overtime.
The Packers won the toss. Favre found Bill Schroeder for a 22-yard gain on 3rd and 9 to move the chains, and after two Ahman Green runs, Green Bay faced another third down at the Vikings 43.
Favre was blitzed up the middle, and his only option was to loft the ball to Freeman, who was streaking down the right sideline. Dishman had the ball in his hands, but it slipped free and careened back toward Freeman. Although it appeared the ball hit the ground, Freeman knew what he had, sliding past safety Robert Griffith when he got up and ran to the end zone.
In the booth, Michaels, Dan Fouts and Dennis Miller pretty much lost it alongside Michaels. It was the only time in the game Green Bay had the lead, and referee Dick Hantak could be seen with a smile on his face as he considered the aftermath of what had just transpired. When Hantak confirmed to the crowd that replay upheld the catch, a fresh wave of cheers permeated the stadium.
“I don’t even know if you’d call it a play,” Favre said. “That was unbelievable. I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of anything like that.”
How the moment lives on
Without the playoffs in 2000, the play is merely a footnote in Packers lore. Heck, it may not even be the most famous rain-soaked “Monday Night Football” game in the past 50 years, compared to the 1994 mud festival between the Packers and Bears on Halloween.
Sherman spent six seasons as head coach with the Packers and had only one losing season, 4-12 in 2005 that led to his firing and the hire of Mike McCarthy. Sherman’s teams made the playoffs four times.
It’s perhaps the moment many Packers fans think of when they hear the name Antonio Freeman, but should it be? Freeman has said the “Monday Night” thriller is the second-best catch of his career, behind his 81-yard touchdown pass caught in Super Bowl XXXI after the 1996 season.
Freeman caught 57 passes for touchdowns in his Packers career over eight seasons. His best year came in 1998, when he caught 84 passes for 1,424 yards to lead the league. He also caught nine passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns in a Super Bowl loss to Denver after the 1997 season.